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Friday, May 16, 2003

++ The View From The 100th Window

++ Massive Attack's latest album, 100th Window, is by no means a great album, but it's hardly a total clunker. It's particularly effective after dark. In the daylight, its fullness feels contrived, an excess of ambient dread and cloying overtones. But in the small hours of moonless nights, when distance simultaneously expands and contracts, the record — or certain of its songs, anyway — has a way of pressing up close, even too close, at once comforting and oddly stifling. Still, even when the arrangements threaten to boil over in a soup of wailing guitars, sotto-voce moans, roiled cymbals and those omnipresent synthesizers, it almost always contains itself, the flame turned down at the last moment.

"Everywhen" shows off the album's strengths and weaknesses in equal proportion. Those ringing guitar chords, asserting themselves with all the subtlety of a teenager's petulant sighs, lean decidedly toward the maudlin. But Horace Andy's strangely wan singing — is this really the same person who seemed to sing with a throat lined with charcoal-rubbed rose petals on "Do You Love My Music?" — perfectly captures the agonized half-murmur, half-cry that escapes unbidden in the hours of total solitude when time, along with the rest of the waking world, seems to have forsaken you.

++ Most of 100th Window's songs play out along these basic lines, and most balance, for better or for worse, producer Robert Del Naja's split inclinations: toward hyper-attentive curiosity on the one hand, and obliterating bathos on the other. Since it came out, I've actually read very little about the record; it seems to have disappeared in the shadow of its own anticipation. (Note to students of the Stone Roses school of 11th-hour comebacks: the longer the buildup, the more quickly a fickle press will cast you to the pulping mill.) What I have read seems to dwell above all on the album's moodiness — ever since the dawn of trip-hop, critics seem unable to distinguish "mood" as a kind of lifestyle accessory from any more complicated emotion. Of course, the artists are partly to blame here. Indeed, at its weakest, 100th Window flashes its mood as if a sign of some deeper sensibility, unaware that the Continent has shifted currencies in the last decade, that its coin, impressed with the signs of an ennui that finds its peak value in an era of unbridled prosperity, buys a lot less than it used to.

But as conservative, even passé, as 100th Window's emotional cast might be, sonically speaking, it's very much an ambitiously contemporary record, though not necessarily original. When Radiohead released Kid A and Amnesiac, every interviewer wanted to know what Thom Yorke was listening to — where'd he get those strange, glitchy textures. (In this way, Yorke helped folks like Autechre and Kid606 sell at least a few extra records.) Del Naja has clearly been listening to Yorke's picks, as well as those last two Radiohead albums. The squealing organs, dub bass and downcast mumbling of "Small Town Shot Away" come off almost as an homage to Radiohead's "Pakt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box"; the feathered sequencing, pocked tones and shirred static suggest that labels like Morr Music and Mille Plateaux are generously represented in Del Naja's CD changer. (Is it any wonder, then, that Akufen and Luomo, both artists specializing in the merger of glitch and grandeur, were asked to remix "Special Cases" — both succeeding, in fact, where Massive Attack stumbled, leavening the tune's turgid molasses soul with fleet rhythms and crystalline tones.)

++ What seems strange is how these tendencies have passed almost unnoticed in most reviews of the record; critics trot out the trip-hop canard even when it's clear that Massive Attack have chosen newer pop models to replace the old dub blueprints. (The band's Web site even features the periodic appearance of an animated character looking suspiciously like Radiohead's grinning bear icon.)

Especially in the song intros, before all those swelling strings overflow the banks and drown the surrounding fields (crops of what might have been), 100th Window makes a strong argument for the pop avant-garde — a few steps behind Radiohead, perhaps, but miles ahead of, say, The Matrix (the songwriting/production team responsible for Avril Lavigne's Let Go and the upcoming Liz Phair).

The other thing that's strange is that Massive Attack, a month or two after the record's release, seem to have disappeared from view — from magazines, from online discussions, from nightclub conversation. So, it seems, any artist without Eminem's ubiquitousness or the White Stripes' buzz power must do, succumbing to the relentless churn of new product. It's too bad, because the record, while hardly a stunner, is worth living with for a while, even if you do wait until after dark to throw it on. Under the cover of darkness, a flawed companion, mirroring your own guilty sentimentalism, is better than none at all.


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